Inside the World of The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, an Interview with Corrina Lawson

Welcome back for another fun World-Building Showcase interview. Just like my last guest, Geoff Genge, Corrina Lawson will be one of my fellow authors appearing at the Book Fiends Reader Fest on Nov 9 in Norwich, CT. (Find out more) The event is Steampunk themed, but there will also be authors who represent a wide range of fantasy and sci-fi there, too. I’ll be featuring some of these fine folks and the worlds they created all month long.

Corrina grew up loving Sherlock Holmes, romantic adventure stories, and historical novels. That all combined when I created an alternate world where magic fueled a steam revolution. Thus came into being the Steampunk Detectives: Dressmaker/Designer Joan Krieger and consulting detective Gregor Sherringford. (And if you think that’s a nod to Holmes, you are correct!) 

Welcome Corrina!

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, what is The Curse of the Brimstone Contract about?

The plot of the book is about solving a murder mystery: 

Joan Krieger dreams of revolutionizing fashion for this new, modernized world but a hidden enemy stalks her family’s clothing business, turning her dream into a nightmare.

When Joan is a witness to a client being murdered by magic, she turns to the only man who can help: Gregor Sherringford, consulting detective. Together, they become a formidable team but their investigation pulls aside a curtain of sorrow and secrets that threaten everything in Joan’s life. Only by risking her very soul can she uncover the truth, a truth that Gregor fears she may not survive.

But the emotional arc of the book is Joan uncovering who she is and what she really wants. As she says in the first chapter, she’s tired of going in through the side door. By the end of the book, she’s ready to claim her power. In many ways, it’s a story of a woman coming of age.

What are the main differences between the “regular world” and the world of your story? Did you choose a moment in time or certain technology to punk to get there?

Victorian London is often the setting for steampunk tales because, if things had been different, the world might have gone another way. But as I sat down to write a detective story and “steampunk it up,” I realized I need a story reason for why steam technology was adopted so widely. 

The answer was magic. More precisely, the side effect of releasing magic power, which is a substance called mage coal, which has 1000 times the stored energy of regular coal. The availability of mage coal is what sent my world down the rabbit of hole of all kinds of steam technology. 

What is the main way people travel in your world?

There are steam carriages, cars that are primitive versions of Model Ts, for the rich. (Mage coal costs!) Those with less money still travel by train or even old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs. 

In A Hanging at Lotus Hall, there’s a literal flying carriage, which is fueled by mage power. 

There are also dirigibles but they’ve only received a passing mention thus far in the Steampunk Detectives series. 

Did you invent any new technology or energy sources to power your story?

Yes, that’s mage coal. And the need for mage coal is what’s driving the new societal conflicts, especially since the upper classes want to maintain control of it. But that’s not so easy. 

Other new technology? There are traps created by magic for locks, new steam-powered sewing machines (used by Joan and her family), and Gregor Sherringford is busy puttering around and inventing things like spectrometers and steampunkish things to compare handwriting and fingerprints. 

Does language play any role in your world? Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety? Did you invent any new slang or terminology during your world-building process?

When I decided to write a story set in Victorian London, I deliberately wanted to populate the city as it had been in real life – as filled with all kinds of people from all over the world, as befits a city at the center of an Empire. 

So, not everyone speaks the same language. Joan is Jewish and has some familiarity with Hebrew, and also with Yiddish, as her family is Ashkenazi Jewish. Gregor’s mother is from India, and he speaks his mother’s native tongue, Farsi. 

As for new slang, mage coal is a new term, as is “mage”, but since the change to mage coal recently happened, the terminology is mostly familiar to our world. I use “radicals” for feminists but that was a term from our world. 

What kinds of climates do your characters experience? Do they see a lot of change or is it always the same? Has your world always had this kind of climate, or has it changed over time? 

Mmm…good question! It’s the same climate as our world, as the mage power and technology hasn’t completely changed everything since Prince Albert discovered mage power thirty years ago. However, the atmosphere of London is less oppressive, less polluted because mage coal burns much cleaner than regular coal. 

Is there any kind of faith system in your world? Myths and legends that inform the setting or characters? Did you draw inspiration from any real cultures, living or dead?

With a Jewish heroine, I need to need her rooted in faith and even struggling with it, given how the world is changing. I drew inspiration from a number of Jewish traditions and legends, especially of the Ashkenazi Jewish population from Germany. Joan’s grandmother turns out to have a locket handed down from the ancient Jewish homeland that also has magic she can tap to help her. 

Gregor also draws inspiration from his mother’s heritage and a Lotus Pendant given to him by her plays a part in the story. 

What do people in your invented world do for fun? Are there sports, games, music, or other activities they do in their free time?

Joan’s idea of fun is designing new fashions to radicalize women’s clothing and thus change the world. But that’s not the average idea in this time. There are plays, of course, serialized magazines, and novels, and all that fun stuff. 

Are there any interesting creatures in your world? 

Oh, there’s one very interesting one. But that would be a spoiler! 

Your Process

When you build a world, what is your process like? Do you do a lot of research upfront, wing it completely, or something in between?

My process kinda changes with each book. Usually, I start with characters and I did in this case as well but I couldn’t start writing until I had the world-building. 

When was the mage power discovered? How had it changed the tech of the world? The politics? The society? All these questions needed to be answered before I started writing because, truly, setting is character, and I couldn’t truly know them and how they thought unless I knew the world they walked in. 

I do research all through the story. First, general research on what the real world might be like. For this, I did a lot of research on old-style sewing machines, and the process of making clothing. What fabrics would be used? How often? What were the most expensive ones? What different styles had to be used for things as different as silk and leather? 

Then I dived into the Jewish research. I was lucky enough to find an actual handbook for Jewish women written in the same time period. I wanted to know what Joan’s daily life might be like, wanted to know how her family interacted, etc. 

Then, since it’s an alternate world, I kinda winged it. 

So, basically, general overview, start writing, stop if I need specific details, then back to writing again. 

How central is the setting of your story to the story itself? Is it more of an interesting backdrop, or is it integral to the events of the story?

The setting is everything. It affects the way the characters think, it affects the worldview they’ve absorbed all their lives. If you don’t know what a person has experienced in their first 20 years–what they felt, smelled, saw, heard–then I don’t know how you know who that person is. 

Mage power plus steam technology would change so much about Victorian London. And they grew up in this changed world. 

When helping the reader get to know the world you built, what techniques do you use? Do you tend to be front load with context, or keep the reader in the dark and feed them only bits at a time? 

I tend to have details that came into the now of the story, as the character naturally experiences them. It seems to flow better than having one character stop and explain things. 

That said, it was handy having Gregor explain things to Joan, as she discovers more about her magical inheritance. That way, the information about how mage power works, how it can be dangerous, and how to use it safely, naturally come about in conversation, so the reader learns about it as Joan does. 

How much of a role does realism play in your world-building? 

This world is not too far off from our own, so I wanted to extrapolate from it. How would a society already full of dissent because of conditions in workhouses, factories, and full of immigrants in a city respond to suddenly having a new source of energy? Who would get it? Who would control it? Who would have access to mages? 

So it’s basically realism but one step from it. 

Now, I do have another series, the Seneca stories, where the Roman Empire lasted 500 years longer. There is new technology in that, such as the aquila–glider–that one of my heroes invents in book 2. For that, it was basically creating enough history to set up the kind of crumbling Roman Empire outpost that I thought would be a lot of fun to write. Maybe call it ancient punk, given its use of gunpowder. 

Do you have any specialized training or background from your “real life” that has informed your world-building? 

I wish I’d been a seamstress once! I can’t even sew, as Joan does. 🙂 

I expect my journalism background informed my worldbuilding as I wanted to be exhaustive and thorough in my research. 

Also, I have nearly memorized the William S. Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes two-volume edition. I drew heavily on my Sherlockian lore for callbacks to the original stories. If you’re also a fan of Holmes, you’ll find them. 

How do you keep all of the details of your world and characters straight? Do you have a system for deciding on different factors and keeping it all organized, or does it live more in your head?

I have to confess, it lives mostly in my head. I will write some stuff down on legal pads, especially to keep the magic consistent, and I’ll check each use of it to make sure I haven’t violated my own rules. But my best method is closing my eyes and attempting to simply walk through the imaginary world in my head. 

Did you experience any difficulties while building your world? Any facts that refused to cooperate or inconsistencies you needed to address while editing?

Oh, yes, basically, trying to find out the small details like “where would this be in London and how far is it from that?” “Where would a dressmaker’s shop be located?” But the biggest was “what fabrics would be used and how would they be cut and then sewn together in these times? That was ultra-specific and I ended up interviewing a number of people to get a feel for what Joan’s creations might be like to make. 

Thanks, Corrina! Where can people find you on the web?

My Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Corrina-Lawson/e/B006HV96BA/

My homepage: https://corrina-lawson.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/corrina.lawson

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CorrinaLawson

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